The other vocation: Priests who pulled on the county jersey
Discouraged from games, young priests often won All-Irelands under assumed names
Former priest and Galway hurler Iggy Clarke. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
“The PP of Trillick was as ignorant a man and he was waving this umbrella at how bad these Aghyaran fellas were and Brendan took the umbrella off him. You see, being the brother of priests or the uncles and nephews of priests, they weren’t one bit afraid. We were afraid of priests: well, they could cast a spell on us type of thing!” – Gerard Devine (Aghyaran), GAA Oral History Project, 2010.
The above testimony was fairly tongue-in-cheek but made its point. For a long time in the GAA, the clergy weren’t for the most part to be trifled with.
Through old footage flickers the deference of past decades: the playing of Faith of Our Fathers before All-Irelands; bishops throwing in the ball; and warrior captains genuflecting before them long before taking a knee became iconic in the world of modern sport.
They were also austere times for members of the clergy and clerical students wanting to play the games. They were discouraged and, unless sympathetic dioceses allowed it, careers were at an end.
There are abundant stories of members of the clergy having to play under assumed names. Fr Jack Solan from Clare inventively lined out as Jack Nolan and others were forced into similar rebranding.
At one point Maynooth College was the biggest seminary in the world with room for 500 students. These days enrolment is in single digits.
Vocations peaked in the mid-1960s. Ironically, the decline set in after the Catholic Church’s great project of renewal, the Second Vatican Council with its Mass in the vernacular and other reforms – not that its immediate impact was obvious.
“No change will worry the tranquility of your Christian lives,” said the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, firmly contextualising the wow factor of Vatican II.
But by the 1970s the world was changing. Maynooth opened for a mixed lay student intake, but there were also plenty of clerical students. The college entered the world of Gaelic games competition and won Fitzgibbon cups in 1973 and ’74, featuring names that would earn recognition at the highest level.
Nor was the success simply a reflection of the college opening up, as more than half of the team were clerical students, such as the Fitzmaurices from Limerick, Galway’s Seán Silke and Andy Fenton.
They also included other future All-Ireland winners Cork’s Paddy Barry – the last ordained priest to start and win an All-Ireland final – and Galway’s Iggy Clarke, who would have had that distinction but for the misfortune of an injury, although he would in the mid-1990s decide to leave the priesthood.
“I remember priests used to go around to schools looking for vocations,” recalls Fr Barry, whose ministry has been in Zambia and previously Nigeria for nearly his entire career. “Coming up to the Leaving I had made a decision that I wanted to be a priest in Africa, specifically, and I don’t know why. There was no connection with any priest working in Africa.
The big worry was if you got injured, broke a finger or something – how the hell would you explain it?
“You had to look at your life fairly often and think, ‘is this what I want?’ I was always fairly sure.”
Iggy Clarke says that the church was beginning to modernise.
“In that sense we lucky in our timing, coming out of an era when priests and clerical students weren’t allowed to have a profile. The understanding was that this will bring too much attention to them and this is inappropriate to what was meant to be a submissive style of life.”
The new era wasn’t all plain sailing and both needed getaway drivers to take them to important club matches. In Clarke’s case, he and his brother Joe, also a clerical student, slipped off during a retreat to be ferried back to Galway by another brother, Tom, to play for Mullagh in a county Under-21 semi-final.
“Lucky enough we won the match,” he recalls. “The big worry was if you got injured, broke a finger or something – how the hell would you explain it? We weren’t missed.”
Barry’s career was glittering, even though it was cut short by his departure for Nigeria in 1977. As well as senior All-Ireland medals for club Glen Rovers and county, he also accumulated football silverware in the almost nonchalant manner that Cork’s hurling fraternity made a habit of doing.
He won minor and under-21 football All-Irelands but hurling was his métier.
“I remember playing the Munster club final against South Liberties in 1973, the year the Glen won the All-Ireland. I couldn’t leave Maynooth until after Mass on Sunday morning. The club sent a driver up to take me straight to the Gaelic Grounds. I just got in 10 or 15 minutes before the match. Generally it was fine and you could get off most times.”
He also remembers skipping Mass in Maynooth to drive home with two others for training. They decided to attend church en route and stopped in Newbridge, only to be shocked by the sight of the celebrant, who was their dean of studies. Despite carefully reading of the celebrant’s movements at Communion and sidling up the other side, they were undone when he suddenly switched over and came face to face with his errant students.
It was ironic that when we did win, I wasn’t playing in the final, much as I had worked for it and being so motivated
“We headed to Cork and thought we were in awful trouble, but he never mentioned a word about it.”
The annus mirabilis came mid-decade.
“I was ordained in June 1976 and had a few months’ holiday before going to Nigeria. I had dropped off the Cork panel early that year because I was serving as a Deacon in Canvey Island in Essex.
“It just happened that Pat McDonnell was injured and even then my ordination was the weekend of the Tipperary match, so I couldn’t be part of the panel at that stage. Frank Murphy [Cork county secretary] sent out a priest to cover for me the day of the Munster final.
“It was an exceptional year: being ordained, winning an All-Ireland and captaining the Glen before going to Nigeria.”
If Fr Barry’s celebrity was fairly concentrated, Iggy Clarke had a more consistent profile.
Having won the county under-21 with Mullagh, he captained Galway to a first All-Ireland at the grade in 1972. The county would become an emerging force, winning the league three years later and beating Cork that summer in the All-Ireland semi-final to reach a first final in 17 years. And if defeat by Kilkenny was a rite of passage, Clarke had the consolation of his first All Star, but with it another hurling-related difficulty with authority.
Then Maynooth president Tomás Ó Fiaich, the future cardinal, intervened to allow him to postpone exams until September. For a young clerical student, a trip to the US was a big departure from cloistered life. Did he feel awkward?
“I was very comfortable. I didn’t see myself as particularly institutionalised. I had had a social life when I was younger and didn’t feel particularly restricted. I enjoyed all the tours.”
His hurling crusade continued through the late 1970s but fate intervened.
“It was ironic that when we did win, I wasn’t playing in the final, much as I had worked for it and being so motivated.”
That remains the big regret of his career. Injury in the 1980 semi-final against Offaly cost him his place on Galway’s day of days. The management involved him as a counsel on the bench to help monitor the match’s progress and, with victory all but assured, he decided to go around to the Hogan Stand early rather than risk an injured shoulder in the post-whistle bedlam.
He was found a seat beside president Patrick Hillery and became part of the occasion, with the crowd chanting his name and Joe Connolly taking time out from his legendary speech to hand him the Liam MacCarthy.
Still, it was a terrible misfortune but there was no option but to cope.
“‘Terrible’ is probably too small a word. It was hugely disappointing and took me all my time to come to terms with it. My academic training probably helped me in that I was philosophical about the awfulness of it.
“My farming background helped as well in that I knew that this was the way it was. Governed by nature, seasons come and go. Animals die and animals are born. There’s an acceptance of the rhythm of life. I was ordained and based in Loughrea when my father asked would I go out to him and make hay. ‘I will,’ I said, ‘no problem’.
If you were a priest in Ireland now putting in the required effort, I don’t think you could give the commitment
“I had said Mass at eight o’clock and done a couple of other things when I arrived out in my working clothes. I got out of the car and my father was carrying a bucket of water across the yard. ‘Are you ready to make the hay,’ I said.
“He looked up at the sky and said, ‘I think it’s going to come wet. We’ll have a cup of tea.’ There is that acceptance of what is and we’ll deal with it. We had a cup of tea, it didn’t rain that much and we went off and made the hay.”
Barry has reservations about whether his career would be possible these days and it’s a view that comes from insight.
“Graeme Mulcahy [Limerick All-Ireland winner] is engaged to my niece and I hope to do the wedding for them in November, but his lifestyle is very demanding – I was never in a gym in my life. If you were a priest in Ireland now putting in the required effort, I don’t think you could give the commitment.”
Iggy Clarke has often spoken about the lengthy process through which he concluded his ministry was at an end. A year’s travelling in the US in 1995 settled the internal debate and he informed his parishioners in Loughrea.
He would in time get married to Mariel and become a teacher and counsellor. The church he left was already mired in emerging scandals. Was he glad to have left?
“The institutional side of the church, I was disappointed in it and sad, frustrated by the blindness to the whole abuse issue. In the early days there was cover-up and denial. In that sense I was glad not to be part of the institution, but my brother Joe was still there and I had a lot of good friends there as well and I knew the good work they were doing: helping out people and very genuine.
“But I was disillusioned by the institution.”
Paddy Barry has followed the travails of the church but is encouraged by his own environment, a parish in Lusaka in Zambia.
“Ah yeah. It’s been a painful experience for the church in general, including those who follow the teaching of the church. It shouldn’t have happened and was a terrible thing.
“The church here is live, young and lively. The people have taken ownership of it and the parish councils have a big say. It’s a very healthy church with great participation from the laity.”
He never played for Cork again after winning the 1976 All-Ireland. Is that a matter of regret given the team went on to achieve three-in-a-row?
“No. From under-age up I enjoyed the sport and had some successes and losses. I think sport is good for a healthy balance in life. Winning is not everything and the main thing is that it’s a game to be enjoyed.”